Top Boy Netflix Ronan Bennett London TV

Top of the blocks

Volume 4 Issue 001: Top Boy writer Ronan Bennett on creating a cult TV show, then losing it and how Drake and Netflix saved the day.

Arti­cle tak­en from from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 001. Order your copy here.

If you live in Hack­ney, east Lon­don, you’ll have seen all the things you see if we keep our eyes open. Kids on cor­ners, things like that. And one day, going back a long time – 10 years prob­a­bly – I saw a kid by a super­mar­ket round the cor­ner from me. He was about 12 and he was obvi­ous­ly deal­ing drugs. It was the first time that I’d actu­al­ly seen the han­dover, so I watched him for a lit­tle while, then I went over. He wouldn’t talk to me – he thought I was a cop. I told him I was a writer – he asked for mon­ey. Kin­da cheeky, but vul­ner­a­ble as well. I saw him again the next day. I became curi­ous about the whole thing.

I talked to a friend of mine, Jer­ry Jack­son, who’s lived in Hack­ney pret­ty much all his life and, though he’s nev­er been on the road him­self, is very respect­ed among the com­mu­ni­ty. He put me in touch with some kids he knew on the road and they told me their sto­ries. They told me the most extra­or­di­nary things: how they lived their life, how the busi­ness was run, the risks they took. They were all street lev­el, though, and it took me a while to find some­body fur­ther up the chain who would show me the same lev­el of trust.

When I had col­lect­ed all those sto­ries, I went to the BBC and they com­mis­sioned me to write a pilot. Orig­i­nal­ly it was a sin­gle 90-minute film. But in the end Chan­nel 4 made it as the Top Boy series. They gave me com­plete cre­ative free­dom. The first sea­son was shown across four con­sec­u­tive nights, and they pro­mot­ed it real­ly well. It just became a thing. Peo­ple couldn’t believe that this could be on TV.

What I was real­ly pleased about was that the black com­mu­ni­ty respond­ed very pos­i­tive­ly. Most peo­ple, from what I read and heard, felt it was an accu­rate depic­tion of many lives with­in the bor­ough and beyond.

At that time, in 2011, just to have that many peo­ple of colour in a show was extra­or­di­nary. We went out of our way to make sure that this was true both in front of the cam­era and behind it – some­thing that we’ve done on the new sea­son, too.

After the sec­ond series aired in 2013, I went to lunch with the head of dra­ma at Chan­nel 4. He told me that the head of the chan­nel didn’t want to do it any­more. As a screen­writer, you have to be pre­pared to live with fail­ure and dis­ap­point­ment, but this felt dif­fer­ent. I knew how much peo­ple cared about it. I knew how dev­as­tat­ed the young actors would be.

We talked about doing some­thing else, mak­ing a movie maybe. Some­one even sug­gest­ed a musi­cal. But that seemed mad. So we wrote it off and I thought we’d nev­er see it again.

In 2011, just to have that many peo­ple of colour in a show was extra­or­di­nary. We went out of our way to make sure that this was true both in front of the cam­era and behind it.”

Then in 2015 my pro­duc­er part­ners called. They’d had word that Drake real­ly loved the show. There were ideas float­ing around, such as him buy­ing the rights and doing a remake. But we didn’t want to give up the rights, and we didn’t want it to be relo­cat­ed to Detroit.

I have to con­fess: before I met Drake in Lon­don, I didn’t know who he was. I told my kids I was going out to meet some singer. They near­ly faint­ed when I told them who. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was absolute­ly pas­sion­ate about Top Boy. He was also mod­est and hum­ble, which was very endear­ing. And all he said was: Look, I wan­na do what­ev­er I can to help bring this back.”

After the meet­ing, we went back to work. It took a while to come up with a sto­ry­line for a new series. You had to bear in mind that the aver­age life of a road­man is pret­ty short. You go to jail, you get killed – or, if you make it to your late 20s, most of them move away from it. Now that Dushane (Ash­ley Wal­ters) and Sul­ly (Kane Kano” Robinson)are in their late 30s, what would they be doing?

Once we had that, we approached Net­flix. We had a meet­ing with them and Drake in LA. Drake was absolute­ly piv­otal. Net­flix were inter­est­ed in a lit­tle bit of sto­ry from me, but it was Drake’s pas­sion that impressed them the most.

The third series hinges on Dushane com­ing back to Lon­don from Jamaica, the king in exile return­ing to take his throne. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Sul­ly arrives home from jail, only to find there are new­com­ers in our fic­tion­al Sum­mer­house estate.

Dave, the hip-hop artist, plays a new char­ac­ter, a very aggres­sive, semi-psy­chopath called Mouldy. I’ve met Dave a cou­ple of times and it’s clear we gave him a very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter from what the man is, but he absolute­ly killed it. Anoth­er musi­cian, Lit­tle Simz, plays a sin­gle moth­er and part-time beau­ti­cian. Her char­ac­ter is com­plete­ly solid.

I’ve seen Hack­ney trans­form mas­sive­ly over the last 10 years. We live cheek-by-jowl with well-to-do peo­ple and peo­ple who are real­ly, real­ly strug­gling – peo­ple who are one pay­check away from des­ti­tu­tion. So we want­ed to incor­po­rate that change in the new series. When Dushane returns, he walks into a new­ly gen­tri­fied hip­ster café and the barista weighs out the cof­fee beans on drug dealer’s scales. That actu­al­ly hap­pened, and that is also a part of east Lon­don now.

But I hope that peo­ple across the world accept it, too. Writ­ers always talk about find­ing uni­ver­sal themes, and fam­i­ly is at the heart of Top Boy. Your com­mu­ni­ty, your neigh­bour­hood. This world exists in Amer­i­can cities, in Euro­pean cities. But we’ll soon see.

Ronan Ben­nett, as told to Bel­la Taliesen.

Top Boy is avail­able to stream on Net­flix on Sep­tem­ber 13th

Left to right: Shone wears shirt ALBAM, track­suit bot­toms STONE ISLAND, train­ers and hat stylist’s own. Alexan­der trousers CARHARTT, train­ers NIKE, t-shirt and acces­sories Alexander’s own. Micheal wears jack­et ACNE, t-shirt LOEWE, trousers and shoes LOUIS VUIT­TON and jack­et Michael’s own. Hope wears top ACNE, trousers AIR PANGEA and train­ers NIKE. Shi­ann wears vest COT­TWEIL­ER, t-shirt NAPA MAR­TINE ROSE, trousers CARHARTT and train­ers NIKE. Keiy­on wears t-shirt CARHARTT, trousers A-COLD-WALL and train­ers NIKE. Michael wears shirt ALBAM, t-shirt STUSSY, trousers STONE ISLAND and shoes ACNE. Nyshai jack­et and trousers COTWEIL­ER, train­ers NIKE and acces­sories Nyshai’s own. Ricky shirt STUSSY, t-shirt C.P. COM­PA­NY, trousers STONE ISLAND, train­ers NIKE and acces­sories Ricky’s own. Reniko shirt PRA­DA, t-shirt CARHARTT, trousers and acces­sories Reniko’s own.

Hair NURIYE SON­MEZ and RANELLE CHAP­MAN using LEONOR GREYL, Make-up MAYA MAN using KIEHLS, Dig­i­tal oper­a­tor PHILIP BRADLEY, Retouch­ing STU­DIO RM, Pro­duc­tion ROSAN­NA GOULD­MAN, Pro­duc­tion Man­age­ment KATHER­INE BAMP­TON, Photographer’s First Assis­tant STRA­TON HERON, Styling Assis­tance WISAM MAS­RI, Make-up Assis­tance GEOR­GIA WILLIAMS, Thanks to TOW­ER HAM­LETS, NICOLE OJO, MIT­SU­MI REH-VAN.

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